DIVINE JUSTICE AND ETHICAL EXPERIENCE:
Reflection on a page written by Sidgwick
Sidgwick pays great attention to those subjects regarding Theism, whose hypothesis are verifiable through human experience. He holds that «those sciences which can point to exact particular predictions, made before the event and realised by the event, acquire thereby a claim to our confidence, which must be wanting to any philosophy of Theism, based on the data which we at the present possess» (Henry Sidgwick, “On the Nature of the Evidence for Theism”, Paper
read to the Synthetic Society, on February 25, 1898, now in A. Sidgwick and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1906, p. 606.). The problem of Theism appears central to Sidgwick – as is natural considering the philosophical prospect to which he devotes particular attention – above all to investigate the foundation of what is just: «for Theism, if it is to be of any “practical importance to mankind”, predicts, and must predict: it predicts the complete realisation of Divine Justice in the ordering of the world of humanity and the individual lives of men; and it admittedly cannot show the realisation of this prediction in the past experience» (Henry Sidgwick, “On the Nature of the Evidence for Theism”, Paper read to the Synthetic Society, on February 25, 1898, now in A. Sidgwick and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1906, p. 606.).
This means recognizing the need for the non-negotiable ontological foundation of Divine Justice and recognizable rights founded on it – therefore not merely extractible from historical data and experience – making an option in favour of an anthropology that develops through history and therefore includes the sense of a knowledge which is acquired progressively, but also which is definitely able to found the universality of ethics and juridical principles. Sidgwick turns his attention «to experience of the manner in which conviction has actually been reached in the progress of human knowledge», and denies that «verification by particular experiences and the cogent demonstration from incontrovertible premises are the only modes of attaining thekind and degree of certitude which we require for a “working philosophy of religious belief”. This contention appears to me itself contrary to experience» (Henry Sidgwick, “On the Nature of the Evidence for Theism”, Paper read to the Synthetic Society, on February 25, 1898, now in A. Sidgwick and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1906, p. 606.).
The main question lies in the fact that the problem of Justice, in the theistic prospective, whether one likes it or not, is inevitably the recurring and insurmountable problem of the significance which Justice and rights acquire in relation to their authority and sanctions. Positive right, which derives from Divine Justice, not only derives from an indisputable, shared, objective and universal source, but is also ethically recognizable; therefore it is considered necessarily obligatory for every positive law system. Piovani writes that with the modern age natural law has been fragmented, leaving the way open for natural rights which, as a result, are destined to become “formalised”. In this way the essence of old jusnaturalism changes, and although it continues to be called by the same name, we find ourselves in front of government laws and written codes. It is no longer God or na-ture who make laws, but Man’ s reason.
Sidgwick seizes on this aspect of modernity but confirms the non-arbitrary meaning of Divine Justice, making evident the sense and significance of human history, declaring that he wants to «consider examples of the intellectual process by which new convictions have actually been substituted for old ones in the progress of empirical science: it seems to me that such changes repeatedly take place not because new experiences, really crucial, have proved the new opinion right and the old wrong: it is rather that the new opinion is seen to harmonise better with previously known facts, and with men’s whole conception of the course of nature» (Henry Sidgwick, “On the Nature of the Evidence for Theism”, Paper read to the Synthetic Society, on February 25, 1898, now in A. Sidgwick and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1906, p. 606.).
According to him, it is an essential aim for moral philosophers to give back to the humanity of modern times the possibility of finding an order of the world the allows them to look for a common destiny, to give a basis to democracy and give fundamental rights a possible, ethically shared guarantee, thus establishing firm points in the bewildered unrest of the contemporary world and the questions posed by man.
In the debate in which the English philosopher finds himself, two conceptions face each other: on the one side an agnostic and dogmatic point of view which knowingly renounces the universalistic foundation of rights and believes that the world itself does not have an order and it is men who give this order through their knowledge and will. Thus, they try to separate good from evil basing their judgment on individual opinions and the opinions of the enlightened majority.
The Theistic point of view believes that the world has an order and we are incapable of providing it, as it is a cosmos and not a chaos. Such order is recognised as true, just and good and men have just one great duty: know it, respect it and, when it is damaged, restore it. But certainly, men cannot modify it as they would like. The world has an order, even if this order does not allow us to know immediately the principles of Justice and, consequently the rights that can only be known in the day-to-day effort and translated into written laws.
For the former conception, the autonomy of conscience means submission to the individual will, which takes us to relativistic arbitrariness; for the latter conception the autonomy of conscience means submission to reason guided by God and able to establish the order of the laws in a universal way. In the former conception individual freedom is unlimited and it can design the cosmos with the risk of not reaching any order, while in the latter, freedom becomes responsibility and man hears within himself the voice of reason on which the world is founded and it is reason which overcomes chaos, affirming with the action of free will the order which is at the basis of individual rights.
In short, the more we examine the process of change in what is commonly accepted as knowledge the more we find that the notion of “verification by experience” – in the sense of “verification by particular sense-perception” – is inadequate to explain or justify it. The criterion that we find really decisive, in case after case, is not any particular new sense-perception, or group of new sense-perception, but consistency with an elaborate and complex system of beliefs, in which the results of an indefinite number of perceptions and inferences are combined. (Henry Sidgwick, “On the Nature of the Evidence for Theism”, now in A. Sidgwick and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1906, p. 607.)
Presuming that there is a rational order in the world created means making an effort to harmonise the knowledge and experiences that it contains. This presumption does not exclude either evil or human liberty, while it gives the possibility to foresee and define moral criteria which allows us to judge actions (allowing us to compare different cultures, and requiring the responsibility of valuing these different cultures according to ethical principles). In this way, as Vico stated, man weaves common history, which has neither obligatory roads to follow, nor obligatory aims, and falling down and getting up finally reveals the order of the world. In fact, liberty expects will to choose between what the arbitrariness of the individual (or a single culture) chooses and a rational and universalistic criterion on which considers the human condition, that is, will is expected to choose between singularistic chaos and universalistic order. Only when we have to choose, do we recognise that the act is ethical: only when we have to choose, do we have a jusnaturalistic foundation of human rights which is written in the law of duty which leads individual instincts towards the universal building of the history of human ideas.
©2008-2009 Hortense Geninet